In the months and years to come, post-Fukushima, people who influence power plant construction decisions will be making choices that will have a large impact on future generations. In this reflective time of the year, it is important to gather the most accurate lessons learned and to offer some food for thought about the motives that might be leading some decision makers to completely misread the lessons that should be learned.
Brief summary of what really happened in the Fukushima prefecture
In March 2011, an enormous earthquake shook the north east coast of Japan. It rattled every part of the infrastructure, including several large nuclear power stations. Many parts of the infrastructure were seriously damaged by the earth’s movement. Apparently, all of the nuclear power stations were able to safely shut down and suffered no long term damage from the shaking.
The earth’s movement also generated a large tidal wave (tsunami) that reached heights as high as 45 feet (14 meters) in some places. That wave washed over the defenses that had been engineered to protect the people, factories, buildings, bridges, and ports that tend to concentrate in various parts of the coast all around the world.
There are many benefits for human society that are associated with living close to the ocean; there is a good reason why about 75% of the world’s population lives within 50 miles of the coast. There is also, however, a certain amount of risk associated with living near the ocean. Sometimes, it causes enormous damage as it surges over the structures that humans have erected.
That wave (actually multiple waves) of salt water severely damaged nearly everything in its path. The tsunami’s wide path included the sites of two large nuclear power stations in the Fukushima prefecture, one with six individual units (Daiichi – aka First) and one with four slightly newer units just a few miles away (Daini – aka Second).
At Daiichi, there were two groupings of nuclear units – a group of four right on the coast, and a group of two that were on slightly higher ground. Those two separate units were part of the last phase of the station construction; they included some refinements compared to the units that had been built in the earliest phases.
Daini (the second station in Fukushima) also included design refinements that had been suggested during construction at Daiichi, the plants were on slightly higher ground and the emergency power system was not quite so concentrated in basements and low lying portions of the plant site. As nukes would describe it, there was more “separation” and more “diversity” in the backups to the backup power supply.
We all “know” what happened to four of the units at Daiichi, the first nuclear station built in the Fukushima prefecture. The tsunami wiped out the plant’s primary power supply (the electrical grid) and wiped out nearly all of the backup power supplies (at least 8 of them). The wave also washed into the basements of the power plant buildings including the ones at each unit that housed the switchgear where the emergency diesel generators connected to the plant’s electrical power systems.
Aside; There was good justification for locating those vital systems in the basement at the time when the plants were constructed – devices that are vulnerable to being damaged in an earthquake fare better when they are put underground where there is less movement. However, the early designers did not pay as much attention to power system diversity as we do now (and as nuclear system designers have done since the late 1970s after learning from Browns Ferry.)
There is also a pretty good reason why the switchgear was never relocated, even after many people recognized the vulnerable location. Moving electrical power supplies is a difficult task that requires a lengthy plant shutdown. I cannot put numbers on those modifiers, but I can certainly understand why the plant owners and their government regulators (which includes those regulators that are responsible for electricity rate setting as well as those responsible for nuclear safety) might have determined that the cost was not justified by the reduction in risk. No one can afford to implement every good idea; there is always a limit on the available resources and a process of prioritizing the expenditure of those resources.
It is not fair of any observers to simply point to the fact of what happened to the station after the occurrence of a rather unlikely event. There was a high probability that the station owners could have operated the plants to the end of their design life without ever having experienced a rare (but obviously possible) tsunami. End Aside.
As a direct result of an insufficiently diverse and separated electrical power supply system, four units at Daiichi lost the ability to circulate water, the ability to add water, the ability to ventilate the secondary containment structures to prevent pockets of hydrogen from accumulating and the ability to monitor the conditions of the plants. The lost of those important capabilities, all enabled by having some form of electrical power available, led to the often repeated stories of significant plant damage and the release of easily sensed quantities of radioactive material.
The improved power supply systems at the newest two units at Fukushima Daiichi and the four units at Fukushima Daini allowed the operators at those facilities to put them into a safe, cooled down condition without releasing any radioactive material to the environment.
Brief summary of reactions to the events
In the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, the developed world’s public consciousness was quickly directed to focus on the slowly developing events that were happening at one of the nuclear power stations that had been affected by the twin natural disasters. There is nothing automatic about that focusing; it was the result of thousands of individual editorial and production decisions about which facet of the story to cover.
The individuals who made those decisions had to consciously or unconsciously weigh the importance and the value of telling everyone more about the nuclear power plant woes (often filling valuable air time and print space by repeating the same story and the same video footage hundreds to thousands of times) while not telling them about the public suffering due to loss of family members, housing, income generating property, or about the woes at other industrial facilities – like the Cosmo oil refinery in Chiba that experienced a dramatic and photogenic fire that raged uncontrolled for 10 solid days.
Antinuclear activists around the world leaped into action to emphasize the events and even to spin tall tales about the possible “worst case” accidents. They are still working that story as hard as they can. There will be a study announced today (December 19, 2011) that is designed to instill as much worry as possible among Americans about radiation released from Fukushima. That study is written by three professional antinuclear activists, one who was an completely discredited “study” of Chernobyl, and one that has been operating a discredited “Tooth Fairy” project for a couple of decades.
One particular Manchurian candidate activist who had fairly recently been appointed to a key strategic position as the head of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the widely recognized “gold standard” of government nuclear safety experts, testified to the US Congress that the situation at the power station was so bad that all Americans within 50 miles of the plant needed to evacuate.
That pronouncement has been repeated thousands of times and is often being used as the justification for actions to shut down existing nuclear plants that are within 50 miles of a large, difficult to evacuate population concentration.
Other lifelong antinuclear activists in public office took to the air waves and made dramatic statements about the tragedy and about the need to quickly move away from the use of nuclear energy since the events proved – to them at least – that nuclear plant designers were incapable of building safe facilities that could withstand every possible force that nature (or terrorists) might throw.
Aside. None of those public figures, by the way, ever talks about the six units – two at Daiichi and four at Daini – that stand as quiet testimony to the fact that nuclear plant designers are quite capable of learning and improving the resilience of their facilities when given the chance. End Aside.
During the public hearings held last week by the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, questioners repeatedly introduced the topic of Fukushima and the actions we should be taking in response to that event. In fact, the Senate hearing was specifically titled Review of the NRC’s Near-Term Task Force Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century.
However, it appeared to me that most of the people who brought up the topic had done little serious study to understand the full story. They appear happy to hope that no one else has done their homework either.
They did not appear to know that the four damaged units had been cooled down to a safe shutdown condition. They did not appear to understand that the water that had been contaminated was either being cleaned up by a filtering system or had been safely diluted by the bazillions of gallons of water in the Pacific Ocean.
They did not appear to realize that plans are finally underway to allow the forcibly displaced population to begin returning home to clean up. There is a lot of work to do to clean up both the effects of the tsunami and the artificially imposed effects on facilities and livestock populations that have not been maintained by human beings for more than nine months.
The people for whom “Fukushima” is a scare word designed to encourage others to abandon the beneficial use of nuclear energy did not appear to know that the “safety” levels that have been officially imposed regarding radiation exposure are so low that they will impose an added risk of contracting cancer – even using the most pessimistic assumptions and the most conservative model – of about 0.5%. That added risk is about 20 – 50 times less than someone might assume by smoking and about 10 – 20 times less than someone might assume by being obese.
They also did not appear to understand that the event that some antinuclear activists and their political friends have called the worst nuclear accident in history did not release radioactive material in a sufficient concentration to have injured or killed anyone.
A critical thinking, questioning person (like George Monbiot) would logically conclude that, if Fukushima Daiichi represents the worst nuclear accident in history, then we should be pursuing a rapidly expanding construction program. Compared to the risks imposed by all other energy alternatives, including the risk that would be imposed by not having sufficient quantities of reliable, affordable energy, Fukushima was not so bad. It was, in fact, a dramatic example that the risks imposed by accepting the benefits of affordable, emission free nuclear energy are well within the “acceptable” range, even in the worst realistic conditions.
Reaction from nuclear energy competition
One final aspect about Fukushima worth serious consideration and deep thinking is the response to the accident by the suppliers and speculators associated with the enterprise of suppling the same product that nuclear energy supplies. The competitors have leaped in with massive investments in ads and studies to prove that “in the wake of Fukushima” they are capable of stepping in to fill whatever voids in the power supply are caused by a lower output of nuclear energy.
The natural gas industry, in particular, is beating the drums to tell the story of its newly discovered ability to extract natural gas that is tightly bound up in large deposits of shale rock located several thousand feet below the earth’s surface. What some people call “the shale storm” is being offered as a bridge to a utopian vision of a world where there is no fossil fuel and no nuclear energy being used.
It is mighty “big” of fossil fuel suppliers and alternative energy system developers to tell us all that we do not have to worry about shivering in the dark. They claim that they are quite willing and able to sell us the power that we want. Of course, since digging up more coal, pumping and refining more oil and extracting more natural gas will be costly, they expect us all to pay higher prices to encourage them to undertake that increased effort.
Since building wind turbines, solar arrays and digging geothermal wells will provide a potentially large, but completely unpredictable quantity of energy, often sourced from remote areas, we will also have to pay, through electric power rates or through taxes or both, to build additional grid capacity there are other commercial enterprises standing by to provide the additional equipment and labor required – at a price with sufficient profit margins to encourage a prompt response.
The speculators are also telling investors that it is time to buy into natural gas stocks, coal mining stocks, and alternative energy system producers because it is inevitable that those will all benefit as society turns away from nuclear energy and slows down the nuclear power plant building revival that was expected to occur before the accident.
Do you think that it is remotely possible that the hype, attention and repetition about the tragedy and the lack of serious discussion about the actual results has been motivated by the financial interests of the people who benefit when people decide that nuclear energy is too scary? Do you think there is even the remotest possibility that we have all be lied to, through commission and omission, about the actual risk of nuclear energy in comparison to its competitors? Are people making decisions and forming opinions based on information that has been purposely slanted against nuclear energy in order to make already rich petroleum pushers even richer?
Should you really be afraid, or should you take a hard look at the situation, at the motivations, and at the real aftermath to determine that, if Fukushima represents the worst nuclear accident in history, it is time to move forward with all due haste to replace as much of our fossil fuel burning, CO2 generating, politically destabilizing industrial infrastructure as we can.
Please reflect deeply and identify the groups that are most logically the ones that are the most threatened by that proposition. If you decide to become an atomic energy advocate, please understand that there will be A LOT of well financed and organized opposition to even considering the possibility of turning from a hydrocarbon based economy to one that runs on uranium, thorium and plutonium.